Heathen in the Holy Land: Is Israel even safe to visit?

“Heathen in the Holy Land” is a new Gadling feature which will consist of posts all this week about my recent trip to Israel, a country you may have heard discussed once or twice on the news.

Over the course of this week, I’ll discuss a whole host of topics about the Holy Land, like what a leader of Kabbalah really thinks about Madonna, why Israel is not just a country for religious pilgrims and history nerds, how I became an Israeli pseudo-celebrity, and why you should really learn the Hebrew alphabet before you go.

But in this first post, I’ll answer the question posed to me by (among others) my mom, my friends, my mom’s friends, my barber, my sommelier, my waiter, my Lamaze coach, and my mechanic before I left on this trip: “Is Israel even safe to visit?”

Lots of people assume (wrongly) that Israel is not a safe place to go because, well, it’s on the news so much. Others assume the opposite– that Israel must be a safe country because, hey, people live there! I tend to fall into the latter category.

But here’s the important thing to remember: Both groups are wrong. Why? Because both groups are making assumptions. If you really want to know whether a country is safe, you have to do some actual research. This means more than simply reading the US State Department’s “Travel Warning” website, where the current entry on Israel warns travelers to look out for, among other things, short-range rockets, Molotov Cocktails, and “bulldozer attacks.” It’s enough to make even the most intrepid traveler want to spend the rest of his life at home eating Pop Tarts inside a pillow fort.

But the State Department, as the travel writer Cynthia Barnes has pointed out, is mostly made up of well-intentioned ninnies who, “like the father of a luscious 16-year-old” are “happiest when we’re at home.” Because of that, a more realistic portrait of a country’s security situation will come from our fellow travelers at places like Lonely Planet’s Thorntree forum or the Bootsnall forum. Most travelers on those sites warn, as I do, to stay the hell out of the Gaza Strip and be very careful when visiting the West Bank, which was the site of some violent protests only a couple months ago. (Note: When a person writes that they were “stoned in Bethlehem”, which is located in the West Bank, they’re talking about actual stones.)

So is Israel safe to visit? With the exception of the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank, yes. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are no more dangerous than similarly-sized cities in the US or Europe, and violent crime in smaller towns is almost unheard of. As for the risk of terrorist activities or other large-scale violence– the reason most people feel trepidation about visiting the Middle East– most of the risk in Israel is confined to Gaza and the West Bank. Still, several years ago both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were the victims of small-scale suicide attacks, which is proof that in Israel, just as in any country, nowhere is entirely safe.

Bottom line: Do your homework before you go. Read the news, the travel forums, and yes, even the State Department’s website, to stay up-to-date on which parts of Israel are safe and which aren’t. Don’t let a general feeling that Israel might be unsafe prevent you from exploring this dynamic, fascinating country.

Disclosure: This week-long trip to Israel was sponsored by the country’s Ministry of Tourism. Unlike the trip, my opinions were not paid for because, dammit, my integrity is not for sale. That is not to say I wouldn’t entertain the right offer.

Thanks to Jordan Chark for contributing the background for our “Heathen in the Holy Land” graphic to the Gadling Flickr pool.